William Howard Mays, Jr. was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. Willie’s parents were both athletic. His father played baseball on a semi-pro team at the steel mill where he worked, and his mother was a champion sprinter in school. Willie joined the semi-pro team at his father’s mill when he was 14, and played center field with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues – the major league for African American players at the time, when he was 16. He could only play in home games because his father didn’t want him to miss school. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants right after graduation.
Willie played the Giants’ farm teams for two years. When Willie was playing in Trenton, New Jersey, he was the only black player on the team. He was jeered by fans because of his color, received death threats, and had to stay in a “colored-only” hotel across town from the rest of the players. Willie said that some of his white teammates would sneak in the window of his hotel room and sleep on the floor to make sure he was safe, and to let him know he was one of them. He was called up the major leagues in 1951 and was named “Rookie of the Year.”
In 1952, Willie was drafted into the U.S. Army. He worked as an instructor in physical training and played baseball for the Fort Eustis team. The Giants failed to win the National League pennant during the two seasons Willie was in the army. In 1954, he returned to the Giants, and they won the World Series. In the first game, Willie made a spectacular, iconic, over-the-shoulder catch to help the Giants win. The catch is widely considered one of the greatest in the history of baseball.
Willie Mays had one of the greatest statistical careers in baseball history. He recorded 7,095 putouts, which is the all-time record for an outfielder. Nicknamed the “Say Hey Kid,” Mays has been called the greatest all-around baseball player because of his speed, hitting and fielding ability. He played in 24 All-Star games, won 12 Gold Glove awards, earned the Roberto Clemente Award in 1971 and was twice named the National League MVP. His career batting average was .302. He had 3,283 hits, 1,903 RBIs and 660 career home runs. He hit four home runs in a single game in 1961. Mays played for the Giants until 1972, when he was traded to the New York Mets. Later that year, the Giants retired his number “24” Mays was elected to the Professional Baseball Hall-of-Fame in 1979.
In 1973, Willie retired from baseball. He worked as a batting coach for the Mets and in public relations with Bally’s Resorts and Colgate-Palmolive. In 1986, Willie Mays was named to a lifetime position as a special assistant to the president of the San Francisco Giants. Today, he enjoys playing golf and traveling. He is on the board of the Baseball Assistance Team which helps former baseball players when they have financial and medical difficulties.